Lockdown week 1

I’m hoping that this will turn out to be a short series of posts, but I fear this may be overly optimistic. The world as we know it has been turned upside down in just a couple of weeks, and who knows how long it will last?

I work alone from home most of the time so have not been affected by restrictions on travelling to work. However, ESP is now also working from home, which encroaches on my space somewhat! And City Lit has cancelled all face-to-face teaching at least until the end of this term, so I’m missing my weekly basketry class. 😦

Still, these are small inconveniences compared with what others are going through – we are still healthy, we have enough food (and toilet roll!), and spring is happening in the garden regardless of events.

Lemon on a tree given to me by my good friend Magdalen

In search of impossibilities

In the last few weeks I’ve been working frantically on a piece for the upcoming Prism exhibition in May. That has been postponed, of course, though there are plans to do an online version in the meantime. So I shall tell you about it anyway.

The title of the exhibition is “In Search of (Im)possibilities”.

My first idea was to turn a sow’s ear into a (silk) purse. This involved slicing pigs’ ears to remove the layer of cartilage, scraping off the remaining membrane and fat and then attempting to make them into leather by tanning them with tree bark. (There is a tanning process that involves animal brains, but that was a step too far even for me.)

After two attempts I abandoned this idea. The first lot of ears went horribly slimy and smelly after we went on holiday for a couple of weeks (the tanning solution needs to be changed regularly). The second lot were better but I just got bored. So although it may be possible to make a purse from a sow’s ear, I am not going to be the one to prove it.

My second idea focused on the human obsession with gold. Alchemists try to create gold from base metal; in the fairytale, Rumpelstiltskin spins straw into gold; folklore talks about finding pots of gold at the end of a rainbow. So I thought I would make a series of straw vessels to represent these endeavours.

The first problem was finding straw – the stuff they sell in pet shops is all chopped up and too short. So I ended up ringing suppliers of thatching straw and driving for 1.5 hours to pick up a couple of sheaves. I didn’t want it to get damp so kept it in the house at first – but then the mice discovered it, so it had to go out on the porch. Do any other artists have their work eaten by mice?!

Anyway, here are a couple of the vessels I’ve made so far.

These are made by coiling, using a metallic thread. It’s a bit fiddly, because the straw has to be damp and the thread is mostly viscose, which is weak when it’s wet so it breaks if you pull too hard.

The straw also has nodes along its length, which are quite tough and difficult to bend. I originally wanted rounded vessels, but ended up with more angular forms because materials have a way of making their presence felt!

I’ll post more in later weeks.

Another cane platter

I’ve also had time to make another cane platter. This is larger than my first one, which allowed me to create more branches. The shape is also slightly more irregular, which I think suits the organic feel.

Kimono pic of the week

Museums and galleries are now closed, but a few weeks ago I visited Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I never got round to writing it up, but I thought I’d post an image from the exhibition each week to keep our spirits up.

outer kimono for a bride

This is an outer kimono (uchikake) of brocade silk, now worn only by brides. The cranes represent longevity. Brides often change outfits several times, with red being worn after the ceremony. Late 20th century, probably Kyoto.

Stay well!

 

Cane platters

The first half of this term’s basketry course at City Lit focused on working with cane, with Polly Pollock. Many of the stake and strand techniques that we used are similar to those we learnt when working with willow last term, but subtly different.

After learning how cane is grown and harvested, we started with dyeing, using Rit dyes. Initially we were very careful to use different bowls for every colour, but by the end we were dipping the cane with abandon into many colours (or was that just me?). 😉

dyeing cane

These dyed samples were only for experimenting with, so for once I moved away from my normal palette into shades of raspberry and pistachio.

dyed cane

To learn the basic techniques, we used discs of MDF pre-drilled with holes rather than making a base, which was a lot quicker!

cane basketry

We used these to practise stepping up, packing and waling.

cane basketry

Polly likes to set a project for each module, and the theme of this one was to make a cane platter inspired by aerial photography. I played around with a few ideas, but was most attracted by the patterns formed by mountain ridges.

cane platter sketchbookcane platter sketchbook

This didn’t involve packing and waling, but relied on pairing using weavers of different colours. Because the platter was worked from the centre, we would have to add more “spokes” as it grew, and this design would also make a virtue of this necessity, as the spokes are an integral part of the pattern. I thought I also might be able to create texture by varying the tension or using weavers of different thicknesses so that the spokes sat higher than the background.

To test out the idea I worked a couple of samples  – which was very useful.

cane sample

Having ascertained that the technique was feasible, it was on to the real thing. For this I reverted to my normal colour preference!

dyed cane

Unfortunately, I made a couple of elementary mistakes in the planning.

First off, I completely forgot to leave half the weaving cane undyed. So I had to use another batch of undyed cane, which was a slightly different shade (you can see this in the photo below).

cane platter wip

Then I added too many spokes too soon, forgetting that they had to be a minimum distance apart of 2cm at the border. So I had to undo a large chunk of weaving to remove spokes I had added, to insert them at a slower rate.

Still, the platter made progress.

cane platter wip

We finished off with a few rows of waling to hold everything in place before adding the border. Here I sneaked in a bit of the pistachio cane I’d dyed for the samples.

cane platter

It was a big learning curve but I’m pleased with the final result.

I think it could be interesting to do a monochrome version using undyed cane (all the same colour!) and just dark blue – what do you think?

 

Ruth Asawa at David Zwirner

Ruth asawa sculpture

“An artist is not special. An artist is an ordinary person who can take ordinary things and make them special.”

Ruth Asawa is best known for her hanging wire sculptures, a technique she learnt on a trip to Mexico in 1947. Her elevation of this method of making functional baskets into creating elemental transparent forms enclosing other forms makes me think of Haeckel drawings brought to life.

She did not have an easy beginning. As a Japanese American, at the age of 16 she was interned by the US government along with the rest of her family after the outbreak of the Second World War. Luckily, after 18 months, a Quaker scholarship allowed her to study to be an art teacher in Milaukee.

ruth asawa sculpture

However, unable to teach due to continued hostility to the Japanese, Asawa travelled to Black Mountain College in North Carolina to study art. Here, among luminaries including Josef and Anni Albers and Buckminster Fuller, she gained the courage to become an artist and to do what she wanted to do. She also met her future husband, architectural student Albert Lanier, with whom she had six children.

Living with Lanier in San Francisco, Asawa managed to carry on working around family life, often at night or in the early morning. It paid off, as she began to get recognition for her sculptures, and was asked to explain them.

“My curiosity was aroused by the idea of giving structural form to the images in my drawings. These forms come from observing plants, the spiral shell of a snail, seeing light through insect wings, watching spiders repair their webs in the early morning, and seeing the sun through the droplets of water suspended from the tips of pine needles while watering my garden.”

ruth asawa sculpture

As well as looping, she also experimented with tied wire to create branching forms.

ruth asawa tied sculptureruth asawa tied sculpture

In the late 1960s, Asawa moved into arts activism, cofounding the Alvarado School Arts Workshop to give schoolchildren the chance to work directly with professional artists. She was later instrumental in building a public high school for the arts in San Francisco in 1982.

“A child can learn something about colour, about design, and about observing objects in nature. If you do that, you grow into a greater awareness of things around you. Art will make people better, more highly skilled in thinking and improving whatever business one goes into, or whatever occupation. It makes a person broader.”

Ruth Asawa died in 2013, five years after her husband.

The exhibition at David Zwirner in London, A Line Can Go Anywhere, includes work spanning more than five decades of Asawa’s career, including drawings as well as sculpture. The exhibition runs until 22 February 2020.

If you miss it, there is another Ruth Asawa exhibition coming up at Modern Art Oxford, from 30 May to 6 September 2020.

Crop at Sarah Myerscough Gallery

Happy new year! My first exhibition visit this year was CROP at the Sarah Myerscough Gallery in south London – a great start.

The exhibition focuses on artists who work with natural materials and traditional craft skills, combined with concern for the environment.

I was initially attracted by the inclusion of work by Tim Johnson, whose exhibition Lines and Fragments I have previously reviewed. More of his fabulous Keeping Time vessels were on show here.

keeping time by tim johnson keeping time by tim johnson

There were other familiar names too. Laura Ellen Bacon’s buff willow bench took pride of place in the window.

muscle memory by laura ellen bacon

Diana Scherer grows textiles from plant roots – her work was featured in the V&A’s Fashioned from Nature exhibition a couple of years ago.

interwoven no 4 by diana scherer

Of the artists that were new to me,  Naoko Serino stood out for her ethereal felted jute sculptures.

rooted by naoko sorinodetail of rooted by naoko sorinoomoi by naoko sorino detail of omoi by naoko sorino

Soojin Kang uses jute too, along with silk and linen, in her wrapped, bound and knotted work.

Pod by soojin kanguntitled by soojin kang

I also loved Caroline Sharp’s delicate pods  made from willow and birch retaining the catkins.

seed capsule by caroline sharp

Not technically part of the exhibition but certainly worth a look are a couple of ceramic vessels by Luke Fuller, who makes layered moulds which burn away during firing, leaving textured pieces reminiscent of rock fractures and geological faults.

luke fuller

CROP runs at the Sarah Myerscough Gallery, The Old Boathouse, 1 White Hart Lane, London SW13 0PX until 31 January 2020.

My first willow baskets

The first term of the two-year City Lit basketry course is over, and I’ve had my first experience of making willow baskets.

Our tutor was Annemarie O’Sullivan, an acclaimed basketmaker who trained at City Lit herself. She has a studio in East Sussex where she grows her own willow.

We started off by making round bases. As most of us were complete beginners we were all fingers and thumbs, but Annemarie was very patient, demonstrating several times and emphasising the placement of the willow and the position of the hands.

willow basket base

The base is supposed to be slightly domed (like an upturned saucer) because when the stakes are put in they will tend to push the base down. So if the base is flat to start with you could end up with a rounded base, which will wobble.

By the end of the first session we had all managed to make at least one base – only to be told that we had to make another three bases for homework! Practice makes perfect I suppose. 🙂

willow bases

Most of these are brown willow (willow with bark on), but the top one is buff willow (willow without bark). All willow needs to be soaked before use, but buff willow takes much less time to soak (a few hours) than brown willow (a few days). And if it’s over- or undersoaked the results are not good. So I had to plan ahead, especially if I wanted a bath!

soaking willow in bath

Next we moved on to staking up – adding the side stakes around which the basket is woven. This involves a sharp knife and requires rather a lot of room if you have 32 stakes protruding from the base like a willow sunray! It becomes more manageable once they are tied up.

staked up

The next stage is upsetting – no jokes please! In fact seeing Annemarie demonstrate this was far from upsetting – it made it seem very easy. Upsetting creates a strong ridge at the edge for the basket to sit on and holds all the stakes in position. It’s usually done with a type of weave called waling, which has a rope-like appearance.

For weaving the sides we used English randing, which is woven with one willow rod per round and produces a slight spiral pattern.

English randing

We were also shown French randing, where all the weaving rods (24 or 32) are inserted at the same time. Again, this requires a lot of room, so I stuck to English randing for practicality!

After two sets of randing we wove a few rounds of waling to strengthen the rim and then added a border by bending the stakes. This is where I discovered that some of the stakes I had used in my early baskets were far too thick, which made them difficult to manouevre without kinking (a cardinal sin) and certainly made the basket seem over-engineered!

basket border

It was much easier when the stakes were not as chunky.

basket border

Finally, it was time to have a go at making handles. This was definitely my least favourite part of the process – it involves a technique called cranking, as demonstrated here by a basketmaker in Ireland, Hanna Van Aelst.

I did finally get the hang of the twisting technique, but my handles still look a bit like afterthoughts. Luckily they can easily be cut off. So don’t expect any of my baskets to have handles! 😉

basket handle

So these were my first three completed baskets.

willow basketwillow basketwillow basket

Willow work is hard on the hands, so I was looking forward to giving them a rest in December.

But as some of you may know, I am a trustee of a local charity, the Friends of Windmill Gardens, which runs tours of Brixton Windmill and other events in the surrounding park. Every year they organise a Santa’s grotto in the windmill and have a festive bake off to encourage people to bake items made with Brixton Windmill flour. The winners get a prize hamper.

You can see what’s coming, can’t you! The chair of the trustees asked if I could make a couple of baskets which could be filled with festive goodies as the prizes. I said I couldn’t do square baskets (apparently they are very difficult), but I thought that making another couple of round baskets would be good practice and help to consolidate what I had learnt. So I agreed to make two baskets, one with a base diameter of 30cm and one of 40cm.

The 40cm basket was by far the biggest I have attempted. Luckily, Annemarie used the size as an example in class of how to work out how many stakes and base sticks you need, and what lengths of willow would be required. So I had some help with the planning.

But making it seemed to go on for ever – it’s big enough to hold a small dog! And it also demonstrated the limits of the size of pieces that can be soaked in the bath. 😉 It’s not a perfect circle, but I’m pretty pleased with it. And I can see a vast improvement in the quality of my bases.

willow basket

After such a mammoth piece I couldn’t face making another base so for the 30cm basket I used a practice base I’d made previously. It wasn’t brilliant, but once the basket has been filled nobody will see it! Here are the two baskets together.

two willow baskets

Plaited basketry at City Lit

Last week we finished the first module of the two-year basketry course at City Lit. The subject was plaiting, and the tutor was Polly Pollock. I missed the first week because I was on holiday in Uzbekistan, so as soon as I got back it was straight into a marathon strip-cutting session!

We started off with watercolour paper, as it is strong but flexible. However, we were encouraged to experiment with other materials and also to add overlays (extra elements threaded through after weaving the main basked) to add colour and texture.

The three main techniques we covered were bias plaiting, straight plaiting and skewed forms. We combined these with different borders – zigzag, flat and sandwich and sew.

Here are some of my practice samples made with bias plaiting using khadi paper, an old map, newspaper cordage and vinyl wallpaper.

bias plaited bowl bias plaited bowl bias plaited bowl bias plaited bowl

Here’s a straight plaited vessel made with watercolour paper.

straight plait vessel

And here’s a skewed vessel, also made with watercolour paper.

skewed vessel

For our final module assignment we had to make a series of three related pieces using some or all of these techniques, inspired by the modern architecture of Rotterdam.

I have to admit that this was a bit of a challenge for me, as my inspiration usually comes from natural rather than human-made forms. But even I got drawn in by the weird and wacky architecture of this Dutch city.

Here are the results, all made with watercolour paper, damp proof membrane and flattened corrugated cardboard.

plaited basket plaited basket plaited basket

I have to admit that the third piece, of a vessel within a vessel, was actually inspired by another building in London, and its spiky “haircut” was just a piece of whimsy on my part (though I could argue it’s supposed to be a roof garden 😉 ). It’s also not really tall enough, but I ran out of paper and time as it had to be finished for evaluation last week.

I really enjoyed this first module. It was quite intense – and hard work cutting all the strips! – and moved me out of my comfort zone.

This week we move on to willow, which I suspect will also be challenging!

Willow bark basketry with Maggie Smith

I’ve just returned from a three-day workshop on willow bark basketry with the wonderful Maggie Smith. Having worked with neither willow nor bark before, I was slightly worried, but Maggie’s work is fabulous so I couldn’t pass up the chance.

baskets by maggie smith baskets by maggie smith baskets by maggie smith

We started by learning how to strip the bark from willow, with a knife, willow brake or by pounding. Easing the bark off around joints or knots without tearing it can be tricky!

maggie smith stripping willow

But by lunchtime on the first day we had all started to pile up little rolls of bark. The colour of the interior was amazing, ranging from pale yellow to chartreuse green to deep orange. However, this colour does tend to fade as the bark dries.

willow bark stripping willow bark rolls

Maggie told us to discard any preconceived ideas about what we wanted to make and study the bark very carefully to see what was suggested by the marks and texture.

willow bark exterior willow bark interior

I liked the arrangement of holes on one of my pieces of bark so decided to make a pouch consisting of a random weave container wrapped in a whole piece of bark.

The next day we learnt how to cut the bark into even strips, and I started making my random weave piece around a sawdust mould.

willow bark random weave willow bark random weave

Then I cut the whole piece of bark to length, punched holes in it and wrapped the container, stitching on a handle to keep it in position.

willow bark random weave

I left it to dry overnight and the next day managed the tricky task of removing the mould without damaging the bark!

As I had a bit of time left, I also made another coiled piece, using different widths of willow bark strips.

willow bark coiling

Here are the two final finished pieces.

willow bark baskets by Kim Winter

And here are some of the wonderfully diverse and inspiring pieces produced by other students in the class.

willow bark baskets willow bark baskets

Even better, I managed to add willow bark to my cordage collection!

willow bark cordage

 

Lines and Fragments by Tim Johnson

tim johnson little bags

“Understanding particular properties of particular plants during identification, harvest, processing, selection and finally making not only equips ourselves for making tasks in hand but also gives us a deeper connection to place and its complexity.”

The artist and basketmaker Tim Johnson has spent the past 25 years exploring the relationship between place and material, as this exhibition at the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham makes clear.

Take the series of 42 little bags simply hung in three rows on the wall (and I would happily take them, every single one). It’s a fascinating display of sampling – the same technique with different materials, or the same materials with different techniques. Each one is absorbing in its details and range of possibilities.

His 2D Lines and Fragments series also incorporates found objects as well as earth pigments, dried herbs and fruit.

tim johnson lines and fragments

And his Curve series moves on with willow and earth pigments to develop the 3D form.

The Cortina works play with light and shadow – I particularly like the use of dried bean pods here.

Another one used yellow plastic coated wire.

My favourite pieces were  the Keeping Time baskets.

I particularly loved the cross sections of the bulrushes when close up.

Tim lives just outside Barcelona with another basketmaker, Monica Guilera, and there were some collaborative pieces on show.

It was also interesting to see some of the sources of his inspiration, including a squashed lampshade found in the road. 🙂

Lines and Fragments runs at the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham until 31 August 2019.